“How was it? What’d you see?” I asked, accosting him in the murky, cramped passage.
“It’s…I’ll let you look for yourself,” he replied, panting, “just keep in mind it’s really dark in there.” The corridor and stairs were so narrow, the two of us could barely sidle past one another. I was already claustrophobic from the musty rooms above ground. Now, in the crypt I could scarcely breathe; my eyes detected shadows in the gloom. Otherwise, there wasn’t much to observe in the chamber: its occupant and his accoutrements had long been excavated. Just an empty space. I hastened out into the sunlight.
“So…d’you see him?” Mark leaned in to whisper. He was one of the members of our guided group at Mitla. We’d briefly bonded over our camera lens preferences.
I laughed. “What?”
“Look…I’m not…y’know one o’ those supernatural nuts, but…you didn’t…I mean you had to have seen the guy in there…right?”
“Uh…it’s an empty tomb, Mark.”
The back of my neck prickled. “You thought you saw someone in there?”
Our guide summoned us for a lecture so we hurried off, but I was distracted. I don’t believe in ghosts. Nevertheless, this ancient ruin could be teeming with them. Mitla, a nahuatl word meaning “Place of the Dead,” may refer to the annihilation of this city by the Aztecs. Even prior to its conquest, constant skirmishes between Mixtecs and Zapotecs left the ceremonial center ravaged. Our docent, James, explained all this carnage to us in precise numbers and calendar dates. I, however, kept wondering about the phantom. Had Mark been hallucinating, or playing a joke on me, or had he mistaken another visitor? A part of me began to speculate whether I had felt the semblance of a presence from long ago.
What makes historical sights come alive for me are details — the uncovered relics, the disinterred murals, the archaeological detritus. I enjoy incorporating these discoveries into imagining how a culture once lived. But, too often the evidence is austere and unrevealing. Though crucial for authenticating what happened in the past, it doesn’t impact my emotions, doesn’t plummet me into a narrative.
Perhaps that’s the reason ghost sightings have remained popular through the centuries, finding new avenues in our digital world. The haunting account of a single soul determined not to be forgotten captures our imagination. Whether it’s a tragic love story or a horror recounted, apparitions involve us with history much more forcefully than artifacts. They remind us that the past is never really gone.
Our chaperoned presentation ends. We’re allowed to roam Mitla on our own. Mark and I return to the burial chamber. It’s silent and vacant. We pop into a couple of other rooms hoping to catch the specter, but he’s elusive. There’s only the faint whistling of wind, the tingling of hair on my lower arms, the shuffle of our footsteps. Then, as we’re exiting the doorway of the last priestly accommodation, we both hesitate, turn back, peer into the grayness. Is it a ghost, is it the shape of our fears, or is it Mitla shifting under the weight of history?
Mitla’s most striking feature is its architectural geometry. Intricate friezes are carved into the sides and interiors of temples and living quarters. Archaeologists are beginning to uncover the cultural significance behind some of the fretwork patterns depicting the Zapotec life cycle, thunder, and maize.
Have a ghost story? I’d love to hear your favorite spooky tales below in the comments!